Does Delhi care as Kashmir erupts again?

“SRINAGAR: There is virtually no prospect in the foreseeable future of long-term peace coming to India’s disputed state of Kashmir, where the army has been called in today to quell a month of clashes between security forces and stone-throwing, mostly young, demonstrators.”

That was the introductory paragraph to an article that I wrote on this blog almost six years ago in July 2010 – and here is the almost identical intro to today’s article:

There is virtually no prospect in the foreseeable future of long-term peace coming to India’s disputed state of Kashmir, where the army has been called in to disperse people protesting against a soldier’s alleged molestation of a young girl.

Five people have been killed, some shot by the army – the fifth one April 15 when youth were throwing stones at an army camp. There are curfews in some areas, mobile internet services have been cut by security forces, and train services have today been suspended to the rest of India.

Life appeared to be mostly calm when I spent a few days in Kashmir, though there were two indications of trouble even before the alleged molestation and army action.

One came after Kashmiri students at a National Institute of Technology (NIT) college in Srinagar in the politically sensitive Kashmir valley defiantly celebrated the West Indies defeating India on March 31 in a T-20 cricket World Cup semi-final.

That triggered pro-India protests by the college’s students from other parts of the country who were then attacked with lathi (long bamboo stick) charges by Kashmir police. In the days that followed, the college became a fortress guarded by para-military forces.

The second indication came when thousands of people attended the funeral prayers on April 7 of a militant belonging to Kashmir’s Hizbul Mujahideen separatist organization who had been shot by government forces in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

This was the latest example of people, especially the young, parading anti-India sentiment by attending such funerals – as many as 30,000 are reported, maybe with some exaggeration, to have been at the funeral of a Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) commander last November, and there have been several other similar incidents. Youth also sometimes throw stones at the security forces to divert them while a militant under siege escapes.

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The youth joining the militants are reported to be increasingly from well-off families, having been born in the early 1990s at the height of the troubles, growing up surrounded by violence and arrests. Even the black flag of the Islamic State (ISIS) is sometimes waved as an act of defiance.

“In the 1990s, it was anger and alienation, but now it is hatred against India,” said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a prominent Muslim cleric and a moderate leader of the Hurriyat, an umbrella separatist organization. “I know militancy is not going to solve the problem, but we can’t control it.”

Such is the fragile situation in the apparently idyllic surroundings of the Kashmir valley, where tourists last week dodged the rain to enjoy boat rides on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, and travelled 50 km to the 2,650 meter high Himalayan ski resort of Gulmarg to be pulled by local ski-wallahs on toboggans and ride to 4,200 meters on a cable car called the Gondola.

Reputed to be Asia’s highest suspended tramway, the Gondola is symbolic. It was commissioned in 1988 by the then chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, just before Kashmir’s insurgency and Pakistan-aided terrorism began. Pomagalski of France started construction, but work was abandoned in 1990. It was completed when the situation calmed down and the first stage was opened in May 1998.

It is symbolic because it illustrates Kashmir’s superficial normalcy, with the flow of tourists varying in the past 20 years while terrorism and militancy has come and gone in waves.

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Little has been done in the intervening years by either the national or state governments seriously to tackle what is generally referred to as the Kashmir “problem.”

Narendra Modi’s current national administration has, if anything, made the situation worse than it was because of an erratic see-saw approach to relations with Pakistan that claims Kashmir as part of its territory.

“We in India wasted so many years in containing Kashmir militancy and, once it was contained, we sat back and were happy with the status quo, instead of taking advantage of the situation to forge a political solution,” says AS Dulat, who was a special adviser on Kashmir in the prime minister’s office in the early 2000s after a career in India’s intelligence services.

Writing in his book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years that was published last year, Dulat explains that a major reason for a lack of progress is the role of vested interests who are happy for the current situation to continue.

“The status quo has gone on a long time, with a lot of vested interests having been developed: the army, the police, the paramilitary, the bureaucracy, and politicians of every hue. Even separatists….obstinately cling on to the rebel identity because they are unable to grow” he says, pinpointing the different groups (he should have included the media) that enjoy consequential wealth, prestige, business opportunities and life-style in Kashmir (as they do in such situations elsewhere in the world).

Dulat admits in his book that the Indian government helps finance separatist organizations in Kashmir as well as informers from neighboring Pakistan. Black money circulates widely, flowing across the Line of Control from Pakistan and from widespread corruption – and an increasing drug trade – that involves the security forces as well as the administration and other interests.

But what is the Kashmir “problem” that needs to be solved for the stand-off between the state and the rest of India to end, for troops and para-military forces to withdraw, and for life genuinely to return to pre-1989 normalcy?

Some Kashmiri separatist leaders still talk about becoming part of Pakistan or gaining independence, but that does not seem to be a popular cause because economic prospects would be reduced.

Calls for more autonomy from India are often heard and could be discussed if Delhi was prepared to bother, though that goes against the current Modi government’s approach to nationalism and its interest in repealing the state’s special constitutional provisions. Modi also refuses to recognize the Hurriyat as a legitimate party to any discussions (which conversely raises rather than reduces their image), while the Hurriyat insists on Pakistan being included in a three-way dialogue.

One view is that it is not really a “Kashmir problem” but a “Delhi problem” because it is Delhi that sustains the stand-off, preferring to leave things as they are, as Dulat’s book explains. To change that, Kashmir needs to be brought into the mainstream of India’s daily life, which would necessitate tackling the influence of the vested interests. “It’s an emotional issue. Kashmiris need justice and a feeling of dignity instead of feeling inadequate and ignored,” says an experienced observer.

There is now an opportunity for fresh initiatives because Modi’s BJP is a partner in the state’s coalition government with the local People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The government is headed as chief minister by the PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti, who succeeded her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, after he died on January 7. Mehbooba now has to assert her authority and straddle the contradictions inherent in leading a coalition government with the Hindu nationalist BJP in a state which is nearly 80 percent Muslim.

A first step would be for Delhi to meet local demands for abolition of the 1990 Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), an emergency law that protects the armed forces from prosecution for alleged atrocities in the state. Next, some people suggest, Delhi could call the bluff of the Hurriyat leaders by reducing or withdrawing their covert financial support and persuading them to dare to test their real popular support in state assembly elections.

Delhi could also stop seeing Kashmir and Kashmiris through the prism of its relations with Pakistan. When the NIT college fracas began, the Delhi-based Indian media grossly over-played the clashes, criticizing both the Kashmiri students for being anti-Indian (ie, pro Pakistan) and the local police for daring to beat up Indian students. The student clash need not have grown into a unnecessary crisis and should have been seen as just one of many displays of anti-India sentiment. For years, cricket matches have been used by Kashmiris for such protests, just as India-Pakistan matches have been used by Hindu nationalists, especially the Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena party, to protest against Pakistan.

As Basharat Peer, a Kashmiri writer, has put it succinctly in The Times of India, “Kashmiri students not cheering the Indian cricket team conveys the nature of the relationship between Delhi and Srinagar.”

Even back in 1983, when Kashmir was peaceful, five years before the state’s insurgency and militancy began, there were cheers for the West Indies when it played against India in Srinagar. Some youngsters, remembers Peer, tried to dig up the pitch.

While a change of attitude in Delhi is essential, Kashmir urgently needs development to provide jobs for the youth and build hopes for the future. Big business is scared to invest because of the unrest and risks of terrorist attacks. Modi grabbed headlines when he visited the state last November and announced a US$12 billion economic package, though not all the projects were new, and little has happened since then.

Basic development is needed with highways and sound village roads to open up opportunities for local trade spreading southwards. In the 1980s, I saw how the then new 800-km Karakorum Highway through Gilgit-Baltistan to the Chinese border opened up village economies with locally-built connecting roads. The Chinese-built highway’s conception was strategic, but its main impact was developmental.

Delhi however has not proved itself good at such strategic thinking, preferring to leave things as they are, hoping (as India does in so many areas) that everything will be eventually work out ok, and can be fixed in the meantime.

As the final paragraph of my report said six years ago, “What hope is there then for the state’s youth? And what will they be throwing in the future if stones prove useless – grenades and bombs again, with Pakistan eagerly feeding their needs?”